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Albert Bathurst Piddington (1862–1945)

by Michael Roe

This article was published:

Albert Bathurst Piddington (1862-1945), judge and reformer, was born on 9 September 1862 at Bathurst, New South Wales, third son of London-born William Jones Killick Piddington and his Tasmanian wife Annie, née Burgess. The father was a man of God, who as a youth preached in Hobart Town, and (having moved to New South Wales) became a clergyman, first Methodist and later Anglican; he ended his career as archdeacon of Tamworth, esteemed for his dignity and interest in communal affairs.

In retrospect, Piddington presented himself as a turbulent boy; throughout his life there recurred displays of wayward emotion at odds with his dominant style of intellectual and moral rigour. After various upheavals his education gained pace at Sydney Grammar School, and in 1883 he graduated B.A. with first-class honours and the University medal in classics at the University of Sydney. Teaching at Sydney Boys' High School, travel, and qualification for the Bar followed; he was admitted on 17 September 1890. A term as associate to (Sir) William Windeyer probably strengthened his feeling for humanity and social justice. In 1889-94 Piddington taught, mainly English literature, at the university. An important friendship was that of Christopher Brennan, indicating Piddington's semi-Bohemian and modernist leanings. His culture included music and art, as well as literature. On 21 January 1896 in St Andrew's Cathedral he married Marion Louisa, daughter of Rev. Thomas O'Reilly.

Social and political issues increasingly attracted Piddington from academia. In 1894 he had stood for Tamworth in the Legislative Assembly, upholding the radical cause in personal confrontation with the premier, Sir George Dibbs. He failed that year, but won a return bout in 1895. Over the next three years he gave broad support to (Sir) George Reid, especially to his more reformist legislation. However, Piddington's enthusiasm waxed brightest in his campaign of 1897-98 against the proposed Federation bill. Like many radicals he saw this as unsatisfactory—inimical both to democracy and to national fulfilment. His efforts failed and in July 1898 he lost his seat, failing to regain it in 1901.

Through the early years of the century Piddington won respect as a barrister, and became interested in socio-economic issues. Long an acquaintance of W. A. Holman, he found new tasks with the accession of Labor to office in New South Wales from 1910. The government appointed him royal commissioner in 1911-12 to study three interrelated issues: whether there prevailed a labour shortage, working conditions of women and children, and apprenticeship. In his reports Piddington argued for selective immigration, for expansion of trades education and for lifting the school-leaving age to 16; he presented factory life as an agency of demoralization, sexual and social. This last theme indicated what was becoming an all-important concern: he attended the 1912 International Eugenics Congress in London where he met Petr Kropotkin, whose blend of mutuality and anarchism chimed with Piddington's own world-view.

While returning to Australia, Piddington received a cable from his brother-in-law Dowell O'Reilly, requesting his views on Commonwealth versus States' rights. He replied: 'In sympathy with supremacy of Commonwealth powers'. Then came another cable from the attorney-general, W. M. Hughes, offering a seat on the High Court of Australia. The offer was accepted; when announced in Australia, together with that of (Sir) Charles Powers, it attracted much criticism, generally alleging that the new men lacked weight. Piddington withdrew, telling Hughes that he believed himself compromised by the pre-invitation cables. That was logical, but Hughes felt betrayed and Piddington had shown his wayward streak.

Yet his career path now rose high. In 1913 he was appointed K.C. That year the State government appointed Piddington royal commissioner again, to advise on industrial arbitration; he argued for an expanded role for specialist judges. Then (Sir) Joseph Cook's Federal government invited him to become chairman of the newly established Inter-State Commission, sitting with George Swinburne and (Sir) Nicholas Lockyer. In prospect the commission seemed capable of ranking with (or even beyond) parliament and the High Court as an instrument of effective federalism: probably Piddington saw it as a remedy for the defects of the original Constitution. Between 1913 and 1920 the commission reported on various issues with erudition and a sense of social justice. Especially interesting were its calls for government initiatives in applying science in aid of economic development, and its proposals for Australia to assert itself in the commerce and politics of the South Pacific. The former issue led to Piddington being active in the Advisory Council of Science and Industry and the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry. He insisted (against Hughes) that the institute's scientists must be free from political control.

The commission fell far short of its promise. In 1915 the High Court ruled that the Constitution gave it no judicial power. This judgment went against the clear intent of the founding fathers, and surely reflected institutional jealousies. But the government took no step to counter the decision, and so the commission talked largely to itself, ultimately lapsing in 1920. In 1919 Piddington chaired the royal commission on the sugar industry.

His next task was chairmanship in 1919-20 of the Commonwealth royal commission on the basic wage. The commission's estimate of a minimum wage for decent family living went well above the prevailing wage. In answer to (Sir) George Knibbs's response that this proposal defied reality, Piddington argued for a moderate basis, with large supplements for every child in a family. Henceforth he was to equal, or even surpass, Dr Richard Arthur as Australia's outstanding advocate of child endowment.

That fulfilment was a little delayed. Immediately some talk spread of Piddington being appointed an arbitrator in Federal public service disputes. Instead, he returned to private practice and to politics, standing for the House of Representatives as an Independent in December 1921 and December 1922. Piddington's personal contest against Hughes on the latter occasion was a highlight of that general election, and his close approach to victory doubtless weakened the standing of the soon-usurped prime minister. Some thought that the favour Piddington won, especially with (Sir) Earle Page, might prompt the new Federal government to repeat the offer of a High Court seat. Rather, Piddington's next few years ran quieter, their chief fruit being a series of vigorous and generally radical articles in Smith's Weekly.

Piddington's broader interests always remained active. He supported organizations concerned with international affairs, notably the Institute of Pacific Relations, the Workers' Educational Association and the Modern Language Association, and in 1910-24 he was a senator of the University of Sydney. He phrased the terms in which the university accepted R. F. Irvine's resignation in 1922, and his friendship with Brennan survived the latter's unhappy departure thence in 1925.

The advent of J. T. Lang as premier of New South Wales in mid-1925 boosted Piddington's career. These two men became strangely intense in their mutual admiration. In 1926 Lang appointed Piddington sole industrial commissioner. As such, he strove for higher wages and standards, arguing inter alia that the stimulus of consumption would foster economic vitality. Above all, he and Lang worked for child endowment in New South Wales, against opposition from both conservative opinion (strongest in the Legislative Council) and trade union militants fearful lest the basic wage diminish. At length Lang and Piddington won some sort of victory. The exigencies of the situation encouraged the latter to make wage determinations which his critics saw as indicative of corrupt collusion with Lang. A subsequent three-man royal commission declared their faith in Piddington's integrity. The government brought charges of criminal libel against the Sydney Morning Herald. Soon afterwards Lang lost office to (Sir) Thomas Bavin; the new government dropped the criminal libel charges and, after amending legislation, appointed Piddington president of the new three-member Industrial Commission, thereby reducing his powers. He fought with vain fury against pressures for lower wages and lower endowment.

In 1929 Piddington's memoirs, Worshipful Masters, appeared. Their tone differed much from his public mien, with old-fashioned (often trivial) tales of undergraduate life and legal luminaries. (Was yet another side of Piddington a yearning to be a conformist good fellow?) Only in telling of a recent pilgrimage to Gandhi's ashram did Masters sustain any power. The Mahatma's simplicity and spirituality impressed Piddington—who in turn preached the gospel of child endowment.

With the economy worsening, Piddington continued to advocate high consumption, and inveighed against the banks and their policies. He considered that the wealthy should undergo draconian taxation to provide revenue which might enliven the economy; he accused capitalists of 'peace guilt' in allowing social conditions which would incline their victims to war. When Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed Lang, Piddington resigned from the Industrial Commission (a few months before becoming eligible for a pension). His subsequent criticism of Game's decision had passionate force. Had Lang won the consequent election, so ran credible report, Piddington would have become governor.

Instead, there followed a decade of active retirement. He challenged the validity of the referendum assenting to the reconstruction of the Legislative Council. He spoke against the Depression-inspired dismissal of married women from the teaching service: vehement as was Piddington's belief in the organic family, he also upheld feminist civil rights. Likewise he appeared in the High Court for Egon Kisch when he won his case to stay in Australia. A visit to the Soviet Union (also 1934) evoked his sober praise. Child endowment remained a cherished crusade. 'Planlessness for the distribution of wealth' seemed to Piddington the nation's besetting fault, threatening the survival of White Australia.

Piddington suffered severe injuries in April 1938 when struck by a motor cycle and side-car; he sued the driver and was eventually awarded damages by the High Court. He died on 5 June 1945 at his Mosman home, survived by his wife and one son Ralph O'Reilly (1906-1974), an anthropologist. The Piddingtons had been extremely, perhaps excessively devoted parents; in later life Ralph and his father remained close, personally and intellectually.

Piddington's eldest brother William Henry Burgess (1856-1900) was born in Brisbane on 24 April 1856 and educated chiefly at Newington College, Sydney. He worked for the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney from 1872 and he was branch manager at Walcha in 1894, when he won the local Legislative Assembly seat in support of free trade and Reid. In parliament he showed concern for effective management of parliamentary finance and equitable taxation. Reid's failure, as Piddington saw it, to achieve these goals, led to an increasing breach between back-bencher and government. To this degree, the elder brother was no less radical than Albert. On Federation, however, the two diverged. W. H. B. Piddington was secretary of the New South Wales Federal Association, which organized the State campaign in support of the Federation bill. This led to association with (Sir) Edmund Barton, whom he supported against Reid in the 1898 election. His vote helped to replace Reid with (Sir) William Lyne as premier in September 1899. In June 1900 he raised in parliament Reid's co-operation with Joseph Chamberlain in altering the Federation bill. Following Piddington's sudden death from apoplexy on 27 September, Barton and Lyne but not Reid attended the funeral. Piddington was survived by his wife Florence Louise, née Bennett, whom he had married on 12 January 1881, and five children.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Loveday, A. W. Martin & R. S. Parker (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • A. Clark, Christopher Brennan (Melb, 1980)
  • M. Roe, Nine Australian Progressives (Brisb, 1984)
  • Australian Law Journal, 19, 13 July 1945
  • O'Reilly papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Piddington papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Piddington, Albert Bathurst (1862–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1862
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia


5 June, 1945 (aged 82)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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